Idaho Reports web extra: Full interviews from Jan. 19th episode

You’d think we’d be able to fit three segments into an hour-long show, but this week, the conversations were too interesting to cut short. Both of our panel discussions — one on sexual harassment and respectful workplace policies, and one on the two Idaho health care proposals — went longer than we’d anticipated, and both were too interesting to put on the shelf.

So if our weekly show wasn’t enough, here are the full interviews.

 

 

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IDP data director resigns after domestic battery charge

Updated 3:35 pm, Jan. 18, with information on Hamilton’s resignation. 

 

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The data director for the Idaho Democratic Party resigned Thursday after being charged with domestic battery.

Tom Hamilton, former political director for the party, was arrested and charged with domestic battery on Jan. 7th.  He currently has a no contact order placed on him.

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Earlier in the week, Idaho Reports had asked the Idaho Democratic Party whether Hamilton was still employed after the party learned about the charges.

“Right when we found out, we placed him on administrative leave,” Shelby Scott, communications director for the Idaho Democratic Party, said Tuesday. “The alleged incident happened outside of work hours and did not involve any members of the IDP organization.”

Scott added Hamilton was still being paid, but had been locked out of his work accounts.
On Tuesday, Scott and Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Bert Marley declined to comment on whether Hamilton would continue to be employed by the party.

“As of right now he has been placed on administrative leave, and I believe that the chairman will come to a decision,” Scott said Tuesday. “We take all of these allegations seriously, and we want to make sure people know we are taking this seriously. Any sort of incidents like this or any sort of arrest, we need to take a look at what’s going on there, and this is obviously no different.”

Ultimately, Hamilton resigned, and Marley accepted his resignation, Scott said Thursday.

The Idaho Democratic Party has previously criticized Republicans for supporting candidates with a history of domestic violence. In 2014, then-Idaho Democratic Party communications director Dean Ferguson attacked Republican support for Rep. Greg Chaney after Chaney’s past domestic battery charges came to light.

“The Idaho Democratic Party says Idaho families and Idaho children ‘deserve your support,’” Ferguson wrote. “Gov. Otter owes Idaho to explain why he endorses a candidate with Greg Chaney’s recent criminal history. Gov. Otter needs to tell Idaho families why he wants Chaney to vote on laws that affect the safety of Idaho families and Idaho children.”

Hamilton didn’t return messages for comment.

According to court documents, Hamilton posted a $500 bond two days later, on Jan. 9th. He has a pretrial hearing scheduled for Feb. 26th.

 

Melissa Davlin contributed to this report. 

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Resources for sexual abuse survivors and those having suicidal thoughts

Here on Idaho Reports, we’d already been planning multiple stories and discussions this season related to mental health, crisis centers, and suicide in our state. And of course, there’s a grim cross-over between childhood sexual abuse, depression, and suicide. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are two to four times more likely to attempt suicide.

But that’s preventable, and there’s help for survivors of sexual abuse. Brandon Hixon’s death has forced both of these uncomfortable topics into the spotlight this week. And perhaps one of the reasons they’re so uncomfortable is we don’t talk enough about sexual abuse. We don’t talk enough about suicide. We don’t talk enough about mental health issues.

The terrible circumstances surrounding Hixon’s death shouldn’t make us shy away from these conversations. So we’re going to have them. And it might be awkward at times, but it’s important. On this week’s Idaho Reports, following Gov. Otter’s recommendation of opening three additional crisis centers across the state, we’re focusing on suicide prevention. 

This isn’t just because of Brandon Hixon, but because of the thousands of Idahoans who are touched by the tragedy of suicide every year.

If you or anyone you know is in emotional crisis, you can contact the Idaho Suicide Helpline at 208-398-4357, or visit their website.  

And for resources for victims and survivors of sexual abuse, you’ll find links to resources on the attorney general’s website.   In addition, Faces of Hope offers multiple services for victims, including group therapy, legal assistance, and emergency housing. You can find out more on their website. 

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After Hixon’s death, some reflection

By Melissa Davlin

In November, producer Seth Ogilvie and I were in Challis for work, when Ogilvie ran into Brandon Hixon in the parking lot of our roadside motel. They exchanged brief looks, then Hixon left without saying a word. We learned from the woman working the front desk that he was on his way to his hometown of Salmon.

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Brandon Hixon

Under different circumstances, I imagine Hixon would have been happy to see us. We had a good working relationship, and he was always eager to tell us about upcoming legislation he was working on.

But this chance meeting was different. Hixon had just resigned two weeks prior, as news had broken he was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse. A month later, he would be arrested for the driving under the influence.

And a few weeks after that, Hixon died by suicide.

We have a small press corps in Idaho. We have fantastic access to our elected officials. That doesn’t stop us from holding them accountable when they’re accused of impropriety, or worse.

But we also know they’re human beings, with lives outside of politics and policy. Sometimes, those lives are messy.

Hixon faced serious accusations, and this tragedy doesn’t excuse the gravity of those. That wouldn’t be fair to the alleged victims, or any victims of abuse.

As of Tuesday, Hixon faced no charges related to that investigation — just charges related to two episodes of driving under the influence. And let’s be clear. Those charges are also  serious. Drunken driving kills.

But that wasn’t the only part of Hixon’s story. When I first met him in fall of 2012, he had recently turned 30, and was quick to tell me that he would be the youngest serving lawmaker in the Idaho legislature. He was proud of that. Hixon was ambitious, and he viewed himself as a rising star in the Republican party.

He had children. He had family. He had friends here in the legislature. I’ve spoken to some of those colleagues, who are grieving even as they acknowledge, and struggle with, the accusations he faced.

Those are complicated feelings,. We can recognize the grave dangers of drunk driving and the damage caused by sexual abuse, while also wishing Hixon’s family and friends comfort.

We can also acknowledge the importance of mental health care. When mental health and suicide came up at Friday’s Associated Press preview, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill stressed the importance of family, friends and schools offering support.

That’s important, but the burden of preventing deaths doesn’t, and shouldn’t, rest solely with loved ones. Idaho has the lowest number of psychiatrists per capita in the United States, and has the fifth highest suicide rate. As Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter requested the opening of three new crisis centers throughout the state, others questioned whether that would be enough. We still have a rural doctor shortage. We still have tens of thousands of uninsured Idahoans. Hixon’s death might not make a difference in those policy discussions, but today, it’s on everyone’s minds.

Tragedies don’t always offer lessons or silver linings. Sometimes, events are just awful and sad. But if anything comes out of Hixon’s death, let it be this: If you see someone struggling, reach out.

If you or anyone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 to speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 1-208-398-4357 to speak to someone at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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This week on Idaho Reports: Tiny towns, big challenges

Two lock-down situations at the Mackay health center prompted the clinic CEO to threaten to shut down the center, leaving a small Idaho community questioning the balance between public safety, conservative spending and the will of voters.

The incidents, first discovered by Idaho Reports via Mackay City Council meeting minutes, took place between August 2016 and January 2017. Both happened at the Mackay Clinic of the Lost River Medical Center. In February, CEO Brad Huerta approached the city council, saying he may close the clinic if officials didn’t improve law enforcement services.

Though the community criticized the response times, those same residents recently voted down a tax levy increase that could have paid for an additional county deputy to patrol the area, highlighting the challenge of providing emergency services in rural areas with decreasing populations. And that challenge isn’t unique to Custer County.

We’ll have more on this story on this week’s Idaho Reports. Also on tonight’s show: Lobbyists Seth Grigg of the Idaho Association of Counties, Kathy Griesmyer of ACLU-Idaho, and Brian Whitworth of the Idaho Hospital Association give us a preview of their legislative priorities. We distill the highlights from the Associated Press’s legislative preview with Gov. Otter and legislative leadership. Finally, Bill Spence of the Lewiston Tribune, Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News and Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review join the pundits.

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Brandon Hixon Arrested

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By Seth Ogilvie and Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Former state Rep. Brandon Hixon has been charged with driving under the influence and obstructing or resisting officers. Both charges are misdemeanors.

Hixon was arrested Saturday night around 7 pm by Meridian police and was booked into Ada County Jail Saturday at 9:10 pm. He has since bonded out, according to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office website.

 According to a press release from the Meridian Police Department, a witness said Hixon was swerving and almost drove off the roadway.

Meridian Police attempted to pull Hixon over, but according to the press release, Hixon “refused to stop and continued driving before yielding.” 

 Once pulled over, Hixon refused to exit the vehicle. After he eventually was taken into custody Hixon was given a standard sobriety test. The test showed a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit. 

 Hixon is currently under investigation for alleged sexual abuse.  These charges are independent of that inquiry, and no charges have been brought as a result of that investigation.

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They Have Rules for That

Note: This story was updated at 2:50 on Nov. 1 to reflect new information about the October commission meeting. 

 

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports 

 

In August, one of the most influential lobbyists in Idaho and the mayor’s pick for Boise City Council walked into the Salmon River Room for an airport commission meeting at the Boise airport. At the meeting, they discussed Frank Walker’s run for city council.

They did not break the law, and they did not violate any election rules. That is primarily because of geography. If either Russell Westerberg, the current airport commission chairman, or city council candidate Walker, who is also a Boise airport council member, worked 55 miles west in Oregon, they would have violated state election rules. If they worked for the federal government, they would have broken the Hatch Act. However, they work for the city of Boise, and the city and the state of Idaho have few regulations on what is acceptable electioneering in this state.

The official minutes from the meeting read like this: “Mr. Walker announce(d) he would be running for City Council. Mr. Westerberg backed Mr. Walker for council.”

In an October e-mail to Idaho Reports, Walker said he didn’t ask for the endorsement. “I did state that I was a candidate for office at the meeting. It was informational, and I was not seeking anything more,” he said.

The Oregon law instructs public employees to “not engage in political advocacy themselves while on the job or acting in their official capacity.” Similarly, the federal Hatch Act states “an employee may not engage in political activity—while the employee is on duty; in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an individual employed or holding office in the Government of the United States or any agency or instrumentality thereof.”

Neither Idaho nor Boise city code address the issue.

The event didn’t end with Walker’s proclamation. Commissioner Westerberg announced his support for Walker and then handed him a campaign check in the public meeting. “I had no idea that Russ Westerberg was going to announce his support, give me a check or ask others to do the same,” Walker said. “It took me by surprise and I was not comfortable with the matter.”

Westerberg saw it differently, telling Idaho Reports there was “nothing untoward whatsoever.”

“Walker announced he was running for city council, which was totally appropriate,” Westerberg said. “I used the occasion to take a check out of my pocket that I’d already prepared…. I wanted to be the first to support Frank.”

Under Idaho law, Westerberg is correct. The closest I could find to a prohibition on actions like this is the Idaho BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION code:

“No public servant shall:

(a) Without the specific authorization of the governmental entity for which he serves, use public funds or property to obtain a pecuniary benefit for himself.

(b)  Solicit, accept or receive a pecuniary benefit as payment for services, advice, assistance or conduct customarily exercised in the course of his official duties.”

The code doesn’t deal directly with donations and endorsements within a public meeting while representing the city in an official capacity, nor does any other piece of the city or Idaho code.

“This is a good reminder of why work of the legislative working group on campaign finance and ethics reform is so important,” said Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane. “Situations arise where people engage in activities that the legislature and our laws haven’t anticipated.”

The Campaign Finance Reform Legislative Work Group has worked over the summer to modify the current campaign finance laws. The group, however, has focused on campaign contributions and disclosures, not electioneering.

The rules on electioneering for public employees and officials in Idaho are murky, or nonexistent. No piece of Idaho code prevents what happened at the airport commission meeting. No section of Idaho code expressly forbids council members, commissioners or even lawmakers from receiving contributions in committee meetings, or on the floor of the Idaho House or Senate. The line where campaigning stops and the public work begins is not clearly defined by law.

Lauren McLean, Boise City Council President Pro Tem, was also at the meeting. “I immediately contacted the commission’s attorney and asked that a briefing on electioneering be presented at the next meeting,” McLean said in an interview with Idaho Reports.

In the October commission meeting, the issue of ethics did come up. The minutes haven’t yet been posted, but Sean Briggs, the marketing manager for the Boise Airport, says commissioners received a presentation about the roles and responsibilities of the commission. “This included a slide at the end that talked about ethics, focused on conflict of interest,” Briggs said.

In an e-mail to Idaho Reports, Walker said “an attorney from the City spoke to me about the matter, and I assured her that I understood the impropriety of such a display and that it was certainly not my intent to have that happen.”

That leaves Boise voters with “impropriety,” as Walker put it, but nothing illegal.

As for the state, a more substantial issue is at hand: Should Idaho have rules about electioneering for public employees and elected officials? McGrane thinks so. “Clearer guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate would benefit everyone,” he said.

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